Reminded recently by a friend about a canyon hike not yet experienced, my hiking boots were making tracks on Ventana Canyon Trail on a recent mid-January day, with temperatures in the 60s, and the sky cloudless and windless. Two-and-a-half miles ahead with 1,200 feet in elevation gain lies today’s destination, Maiden Pools.
Located behind Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, the trailhead is accessed off Kolb Road north of Sunrise Drive. Beyond the resort entrance, look for a trailhead parking sign 1.3 miles north of Sunrise Dr. and proceed to the far end of the resort employee parking into an area with limited parking spaces for hikers.
At slightly over 3,000 feet elevation, trailhead signs advise hikers to respect private land adjacent to an easement providing access to National Forest land close to one mile up the canyon.
Prior to the county acquiring the easement and constructing a trail, access to the canyon could only be gained by receiving permission from private landowners. Though a large apartment complex is easily visible left and custom-built homes are seen right, the trail still has a pleasant natural feel.
Soon the path angles north and the only evidence of private land beside the trail are wire fences with numerous small no trespassing signs posted. Otherwise the views are now very enjoyable, with a running creek being crossed often, and hillsides spread with a remarkable number of beautiful, tall and vibrantly healthy Saguaro Cactus.
Nearing a half-mile, canyon walls close in, narrowing the corridor considerably. Here, tall, rugged rocky cliffs, red colored stones covering vertical slopes, reach toward blue skies. Hikers continue to follow a tight path between fences, with all other sign of civilization no longer evident.
Once a mile has been covered, the canyon begins to widen again. At this point, hikers pass through a walk-through gate, entering National Forest land. Just a couple hundred feet have been gained in elevation.
Often the creek bed is dry, water just a few feet below the surface. Where bedrock rises, the water is forced to the surface, flowing freely. Ventana Canyon Trail is superbly maintained and also apparently extensively used. On this mid-week day close to three dozen others are enjoying the experience. Everyone is friendly, offering encouragement along steep inclines and smiling broadly as the outstanding day is cherished. Two couples, encountered separately, are winter visitors from Illinois, each chuckling as they report temperatures in the mid-teens back home. In the canyon, recent rains and warm weather have left the ground carpeted by lush green growth.
Reaching a point at just under two miles, an elevation of slightly under 3,500 feet has been attained as the trail has meandered along the creek. Folks having completed this distance might be feeling pretty good about their achievement. Exercise caution and don’t get too carried away just yet. Based on a GPS device carried, there remains another half mile to reach Maiden Pools. However, the altimeter tells the real story. The pools sit only a few feet in altitude below the high point of the hike, 4,200 feet. The next half-mile will be a strenuous challenge.
As the drainage breaks off to the northeast, a relentless uphill climb begins, switchback upon switchback. Pausing often to catch a breath and looking back down canyon, impressive views are enjoyed across Tucson, the snow capped Santa Rita Mountains standing tall against the southern horizon.
Delicate purple Verbena and Fairy Duster plants bloom across this southern facing slope. Ocotillo have begun to sprout leaves. Buds on Brittlebush are about to burst open. Even a mature Cottonwood tree in the watershed has begun to sprout pale green leaves of spring. It’s certainly not your typical January.
After a few false summits (aren’t there always some?) are crested, the highest point of the day is reached. After first leveling off, the trail soon begins a gradual descent toward Maiden Pools. Farther north the magnificent upper reaches of the Santa Catalina Mountains are viewed.
After just a few hundred yards, the pools come into view to the right. Having completed 2.5 miles of a challenging climb, the sound of waterfalls is a welcome reward for the effort exerted.
Continuing northward, Ventana Canyon Trail will eventually reach this trail’s namesake, the Window (Ventana is “window” in Spanish), a 25-foot wide natural opening in a cliff face. For those more adventurous hikers, another four miles of tough climbing will be required before this spot is reached at more than 7,000 feet elevation.
With recent rains and the ongoing snowmelt atop the Catalinas, a decent amount of crystal clear, shockingly cold water is flowing, washing out of small ponds, little patches of watercress growing under the surface. The creek then courses over beautifully sculpted and massive granite boulders, dropping into numerous deep pools, water sparkling in the bright mid-day sunshine.
Many of the boulders at Maiden Pools show the attributes of Gneiss, a course-grained metamorphic rock characterized by alternating light and dark bands that differ in mineral composition. The light bands are generally composed of quartz and feldspar with the dark bands formed of mica, garnet, and graphite. The colorful stone provides additional beauty to this location.
A few other people are relaxing in shade, enjoying the music of the cascading water as they prepare for their return adventure.
Centuries of cutting waters have sculpted the stone, cutting and shaping it into a smooth polished piece of nature’s art. Several deep holes have been carved, one after another in a series of small pools, deep enough for a refreshing dip were this another time of year. Just sticking a hand into the water is warning enough to remain dry this day. The beautiful views and sounds of waterfalls are ample reward.
More adventurers arrive from both directions, pausing to enjoy this area. Following 30 minutes of relaxation and refueling with refreshments, the time arrives to depart. Traveling downhill can be as difficult as uphill, especially when muscles are already tired and 2.5 miles lie ahead.
Descending through the steep section of switchbacks is slow going, rewarded with open views to the south. Sections of the trail are glimpsed in the valley below.
Nearing 3 p.m. after close to five hours on the trail, development is reached, a short distance remaining to the trailhead. A gorgeous prize for a challenging day along a tough trail appears in Mesquite trees as 3 mature and brightly colored Cardinals bound among branches, their brilliant red feathers shining in afternoon sunlight.
Given the proximity to Tucson, a primarily moderate level of difficulty, and the area’s exquisite beauty, Ventana Canyon is a gem of extraordinary quality.